It’s been a week now since Dean Smith was appointed as Steve Bruce’s successor at Aston Villa. I’ve had a lot of thoughts range through my head about Smith — from how well he’ll fit at Villa and what the chance of promotion truly is to how much I want to see him succeed as a boyhood Villa fan.
Yet the overwhelming thought is happiness. I feel like I have my football club back and a reason to look forward to Villa every week for the first time in months.
Under Steve Bruce this season, Villa had no pulse, no identity, and nothing that suggested the club had a chance of winning promotion in any other way than somehow stumbling into the play-offs and getting lucky. That feeling permeated everything about Villa — the negativity on Twitter, the lacklustre performances on the pitch. If Villa actually managed to win, it felt underwhelming and more of a relief than a source of joy. When they didn’t, it was a constant reminder that the club were falling further and further behind the target, squandering an easy start to the season.
At the end of the day, Aston Villa weren’t fun anymore. And that’s supposed to be the whole point of this.
Enter, thankfully, Dean Smith.
Unlike Bruce, whose “I don’t do tactics” shtick is stuck in a bygone era of football, Smith comes to Villa on the cutting edge of innovation. He’s going to be interested in developing a tactical plan beyond Bruce’s attempt to simply win matches based on individual talent. He’s actually going to be interested in bringing youth players through. He’s going to be interested in playing attacking football intentionally, not just because the defence is garbage.
And perhaps crucially, I think it’s unlikely that Smith runs his mouth in the press, blasting the Villa fans (in part because he grew up one). Everything about Steve Bruce was annoying, but the thing that really made my support of him untenable was when he chose to use his time to pick petty arguments with supporters, making it personal when the criticism was solely about his ability to do the job.
But with Smith, Villa have a blank slate. There’s an expectation of taking a forward-thinking approach and having a team in 12 months that’s going to be better than today’s. There’s an expectation of playing positive football with a coherent plan. And most crucially, there’s an expectation that, yes, Villa can compete for promotion this season on the merits.
The most frustrating thing about this Championship season so far is that Villa have squandered a great opportunity to get off to a quick start in a league where there’s no dominant team. The only team averaging north of 2 points per game is Sheffield United. West Bromwich Albion have conceded 17 goals in 12 games and sit second. Nottingham Forest are fifth and have won four times.
Yet that frustration is what immediately turns to hope. Smith’s Villa start at a bit of a handicap, but not too much. The four-point gap to sixth-placed Sheffield Wednesday is certainly surmountable over the remaining 34 rounds, and the nine-point gap to second-placed WBA should be achievable, too. The Claret and Blues certainly aren’t out of it, particularly if Smith can hit the ground running.
It’s a new day at Aston Villa and one that, for the first time in months, has me truly excited to support this club. Roll on Saturday, and roll on the 33 matches after that. Let’s get after it.